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I just had the following exchange with a co-worker:

Me: Do you prefer a rubber band or do you prefer a clippy thing?
Her: I would prefer neither.
Me: You would prefer either.
Her: Well I can't prefer either because...
discussion ensues
Me: So you have no preference.
Her: I have no preference.

I gave her a rubber band, but I still wonder:

Can one prefer neither if none of the presented options meet one's preference, which nonetheless exists?

My feeling is that I prefer either, while likely incorrect, is an acceptable usage in the course of banter to play off the repetition of the word prefer and to mirror the question's construction.

My primitive Google searches return nothing helpful. The best search result in the archives is not really relevant: Which is correct: "prefer X to Y" or "prefer X over Y"?

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"I prefer neither" is short for "I prefer neither X nor Y" which implies "I don't want X and I also don't want Y". An extremely literal reading of "I don't prefer X" might mean "I would accept X", but that is a stretch. "I prefer either" means that "I prefer X and I also prefer Y (both are acceptable)". Given that, which one did you want to mean? It is not clear –  Mitch Jan 8 '13 at 21:48
    
"I prefer either" and "I prefer neither" are actually idiomatic expressions and don't really bear close examination. @Mitch has explained the meaning [and that should be an answer]. –  Andrew Leach Jan 8 '13 at 22:00
    
This might be related to answering "or" questions with "yes". "Do you want vanilla or chocolate ice cream?" "Yes, please." (Where the affirmative is deliberately vague about whether the responder wants vanilla ice cream, chocolate ice cream, or one scoop each.) –  Marthaª Jan 8 '13 at 22:32
    
Here, wouldn't the answer be 'No'? The answer I'd give would be 'I'm not bothered' or 'Is there nothing else?' –  Edwin Ashworth Jan 8 '13 at 23:43
    
My take on "I would prefer neither" is that the speaker would prefer, eg, to use a stapler instead of a rubber band or a paper clip (clippy thing). –  user21497 Jan 8 '13 at 23:47
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3 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

If A and B are equally agreeable, then I would not make a choice:

I wouldn’t prefer either.

I don’t prefer either.

If they’re both disagreeable, then I would choose nothing:

I would prefer neither.

I prefer neither.

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Succinctly put! –  Mynamite Jan 8 '13 at 23:05
    
I'm confirming that this answer is consistent with the definition of 'prefer.' As per my other comment, there is an illustrated distinction between having preference for a third, unstated option ("I prefer neither") and having no preference ("I neither prefer"/"I don't prefer either"). "I prefer either" is only technically correct if one goes on to state preference for either of two options over some other (also stated) options: I prefer either A or B over C. Thanks! merriam-webster.com/dictionary/prefer –  vidget Jan 29 '13 at 20:43
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Let's look at this logically. "Prefer" means "to like better or value more highly" (according to Collins English Dictionary). So "I prefer neither" means that I do not like one better than the other, that is, both choices are equally acceptable. That seems like a rational statement to me.

"I prefer either" would mean that you might like one better or you might like the other better. This seems to me a rather non-sensical statement, or at least a very non-committal one. I suppose if you were trying to suck up to the boss and he asks which of two proposals you prefer, you might cautiously say, "Umm, I could prefer either. Which do you like?" Or more seriously, if there were three options, you might say "I prefer either A or B" in the sense of "I prefer either A or B over C", that is, I don't want C, but I'd go for either of the other two options.

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My dictionary definition (Chambers) of neither is: "not either/not at all/in no case". So to say "I prefer neither" does not mean that both choices are equally acceptable, it means that you don't want either of them. (It's very hard to write about this without using the words either and neither and possibly causing further confusion!) –  Mynamite Jan 8 '13 at 22:28
    
And all this came to mind when I initially pondered the question! Albeit, in a rather unnavigable flurry of thought. @Myanmite, both choices can be equally acceptable in that neither is acceptable, both are somewhat acceptable, or both are perfectly acceptable. –  vidget Jan 8 '13 at 22:35
    
I don't think anyone would actually interpret the statements this way. "I prefer neither" would be understood to mean you have no use for either of them. "I prefer either" would be understood to mean that you find them both about equally useful. –  David Schwartz Jan 8 '13 at 22:45
    
Let's not look at this logically, since that's not how meanings are actually determined. –  Henry Jan 8 '13 at 22:52
    
I can see how I prefer either can, in conversation, mean this, but it still seems grammatically incorrect if there are only two choices. –  vidget Jan 8 '13 at 23:00
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I prefer neither means you definitely do not want a rubber band or a clippy thing.

I prefer either is not grammatically correct, but in the context of banter and playfulness it means you don't mind which you have.

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"I prefer either" works for me. –  Mitch Jan 8 '13 at 21:50
    
@Mitch If you really don't mind which you have, surely you wouldn't say "I prefer...."? That's my thinking anyway. You could answer simply "Either" –  Mynamite Jan 8 '13 at 22:13
    
However, I prefer neither doesn't imply exactly this; it only implies that the speaker would not rather have one than the other. See my comment on the next answer, too.. –  vidget Jan 8 '13 at 22:39
    
I retract. I see now there is a clear distinction between I prefer neither and I neither prefer... –  vidget Jan 8 '13 at 23:02
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